MURRAY — Though Robert E. Lee presided over the surrender of Confederate troops to effectively end the Civil War, Calloway County leaders signaled Wednesday they have no intention of surrendering in the fight over his likeness standing on the courthouse lawn.
In the face of a significant push over the last month and a half to remove the Confederate soldiers memorial that’s stood for over 100 years at the courthouse, the Calloway County Fiscal Court voted unanimously Wednesday morning to leave the monument where it stands.
That evening, protestors again made their presence felt, with several dozen engaging in often heated exchanges with a small group of the statue’s supporters.
For hours, the two groups shouted back and forth about racism, history, crime, treason and the Civil War, with some interactions hostile enough that law enforcement officers removed participants from both camps at various times.
The only speaker at the fiscal court meeting, Murray State University Professor Kevin Elliott, told the governing body that the monument is “bringing out the worst in our community.”
In requesting the fiscal court to explore options for moving the statue, Elliott focused on its placement at the courthouse, lamenting that a statue honoring the Confederacy stands where everyone should feel their voice is heard.
“The monument stands for the idea that the power of the government belongs exclusively to the white members of the community,” Elliott said.
Throughout Elliott’s time speaking, County Attorney Bryan Ernstberger routinely expressed skepticism at Elliott’s estimation of the legal ease and simplicity of moving the monument.
After Elliott’s presentation during which he also discussed the cost of the removal as likely less than people would expect, and potential placement at an abandoned cemetery that could easily be appropriated by the government, the fiscal court voted on a resolution that Elliott later said came as a surprise.
The resolution, which notes “the negative connotations that the Monument may hold” for some and “unreservedly condemns” slavery and racial oppression, also says the monument was erected simply to honor Calloway County residents who fought for the Confederacy and not “as several have argued, for the purpose of promoting continued oppression.”
Magistrate Paul Rister noted during the meeting that he took a survey of 280 people in his constituency, which he said he randomized by only approaching people who were outside during his survey. According to Rister’s calculations, 77% of his constituents supported leaving the monument where it stands.
Magistrate Don Cherry during the meeting said he believed the county was approaching the issue “the right way,” and lamented the idea of “mob rule.”
“We cannot run our country that way. If we make decisions by mob rule then we’ve lost control of our government.”
At that evening’s protest, some urged supporters of the statue to consider racial disparities in the justice system and in health care.
Counter-protesters asserted that Black people commit violent crimes at significantly higher rates than white people, but said they weren’t claiming that Black people are naturally more violent or less civil than white people.
At times protesters brought up the prohibition on displaying Nazi symbols in Germany, but “we’re not Germany” came as a standard reply.
Counter-protesters, displaying an #alllifematters sign, routinely expressed concerns about “erasing history” and accused the protesters of not being Calloway residents — that assertion drew guffaws and raised hands from many in the crowd proclaiming their local residency.
Though she was initially flanked by fellow protesters, as the night went on Murray resident Linda Arakelyan found herself surrounded by counter-protesters throwing rude hand gestures toward her “TEAR IT DOWN” sign and, she said, threatening her.
“They tried intimidating me,” Arakelyan said in a Thursday interview.
“If anything, it kind of empowered me more, seeing how much they hated it.”
Shawn Jackson, who moved to Murray from Mayfield, said that he’s experienced “a lot of racist stuff” in the area, and said residents opposed to the statue “have a right to have this taken down, the same right they have to keep it up.”
“People say put the past in the past,” he said.
“We’re not putting the past in the past, because we’re still looking the past in the face.”
Quintin Walls, who said he grew up in Murray before moving away then returning about a decade ago, said the statue “doesn’t represent anything good to me.”
“I ride by it, look at it and have bad thoughts about it,” said Walls, who is Black.
“It represents more dead American soldiers than any other war, and for a cause that wasn’t good. It represents the losers and people who were really traitors to the United States of America.”
Walls said that, if the statue remains up, the community could find potential business partners or residents less likely to move in.
“People need to get involved, vote, protest peacefully and get this thing out of here,” he said.
“I’m not saying destroy it. It just doesn’t have to be on our court square.”
Arakelyan said she’s been involved in social justice movements before, but that she had never even known the statue topping the monument was an image of Robert E. Lee until Sherman Neal, a football coach at Murray State University, wrote a letter a month and a half ago that helped to spark the recent protests.
“I definitely think it’s going to come down one day, whether it’s when we’re older or if it’s just right now through having meaningful conversations with those in opposition … even continually pushing Judge (Kenneth) Imes and the magistrates to reconsider their opinion.”
Arakelyan said near the beginning of the protest, two armed men stood atop a nearby building, which she perceived as intimidating, before police made them come down.
She called her experience protesting the statue “eye opening in a good and bad way.”
“I’m seeing people who, growing up, I would have never thought would be on the same side as me. It’s also eye opening, the fact that there’s still so many people who are so passionate and full of hate that they want something like that (statue) up.”